Symbols of Power in Art

Dezmond Carter

Art 335

Book Review draft

Symbols of Power in Art By Paola, Repelli. (Los Angeles,CA: J. Oaul Getty Museum, Getty Publication. 2011. Print)

The Symbols of Power in Art, constructed and assembled by The J. Paul Getty Museum and author Paula Rapelli, has proven to be a miraculous book. Serving more as a survey, rather than an in-depth literary resource, this book visually shows, rather than describes, how “power” was depicted through a series of visualizations. These visuals can be categorized via paintings, tapestries, and of course, “symbols” that were then idolized and praised throughout the centuries. This book genuinely introduces what “symbols” actually are and how they were used to symbolize power in six scholarly chapters.

For starters, this book opens up with a generic study of symbols and exemplars, which by definition mean, a mark, sign, or word that indicates, signifies, or serves as a typical example or excellent model. With in this chapter, the reader is educated on terms, such as “Lion”, “Crown”, “Purple” and “Caesar”, just to name a few. Following each term a series of pictures are displayed and further explained as to what and how each subject became recognized as a symbol of power. For example, although we all may know what a crown is, or even seen one from watching television or movies—most would fail to realize the difference in variations. On pages 21-25, Paula Rapelli, lays out several photographs and vector images, depicting crowns of respective regions and the materials that distinguish its sovereignty. I.e. “ The crown of a n Italian prince is surmounted by eight gold acanthus leaves or fleurons set atop points that alternate with pearls…” while “the crown of an Italian noble’s crown is only surmounted by eight pearls” (pg 25).

Each page is coupled with a one to two page long summary that briefly describes each of the subjects within the running head. Followed by these pages are images and/or portrait with callouts to further describe phenomenal historical feats. The use of this feature is very ideal and has beneficiary motives that bring light to symbolism that would otherwise go unnoticed. Examples that populate the book can be found on pages 26 and 28, where the Getty Museum not only describes what a Scepter is, but provides contextual references of how it came to be and how its perceived — based on geo-location, religion, and time. According to the authors, “ a scepter is a staff made of fine wood or richly decorated gold, held by a king; but in ancient Greece, the scepter was a long staff used by the elderly as an aid in walking or by shepherds to lead their flocks”. Further development of the scepter soon came to identify with the Christian iconography of the “Good Shepherd”. Societies outside of Europe, a scepter appeals as a rod that indicates social rank and is exhibited during ritual ceremonies. This book definitely takes into account every last bit of detail, going as far as to mention the origin of the word, related concepts and area of diffusion. The pages that follow depict historic examples of how “scepters” were displayed. In these paintings, call outs are found useful when explaining its significance and its impact.

The resourcefulness offered from this book can make all the difference when applying it to a magnitude of assignments that include, but are not limited to; case studies, research papers, and scholarly essays. Within this book, exclusive information can be found on a surplus of rulers, paintings, and how their influences impacted the century. Skipping over the section titled medieval sovereigns, pages 160-161 exists a brief description of Ivan the Terrible. Here you can find a one-page summary of the most iconic Czars to ever influence history. The book describes Ivan to be a “good ruler”, despite his ominous title. In fact, on page 161, to the left of a gesso that’s been photographed and documented, it claims that the term “terrible” other wise referenced as terrifying, can be misleading. The book further explains that not only does the term refer to the character in power, but explains that it was a necessary virtue of a Czar. Supporting facts highlight his action(s) that allowed for him to “organize the first nucleus of a permanent standing army, found the port and city of Archangel, introduce printing to his territories, and began commercial exchanges with the West.”

While this book serves as a great reference and provides phenomenal visuals, the source would be better applied if compiled with additional primary sources. There is no doubt that the material within this book is beneficial; however, majority of the information is summarized and/or condensed within a couple of pages before moving on to the next subject. Even with the incorporation of in-depth callouts to appeal to the countless signs of the symbolism, the book doesn’t necessarily concern the, ’s whose paintings were incorporated and their history. This book has been previewed and critiqued by a league of scholars that are other than the original artist. So instead of getting a truly understanding of the craftsmen, we get a series of blurbs that single out features that are only relative to the term. Rapelli, stays focused on the subject being sure to capitalize on the term(s) and their influence(s).

As mentioned before, recommendation of this book does come highly; but however, it has grievous fallbacks. This book certainly lives up to its name, but can be as convenient as watching a 20 minute documentary on an exemplar an/or key figure that takes a full two hours just to introduce. With that being said, there’s definitely information that’s that can be useful, but thee is also information that’s bound to be left out. This point is highly emphasized throughout its shortened summary’s and lack of accredited artists and symbolic determination.

In conclusion of this book review, Symbols of Power in Art is a great secondary source for those participating or studying to pursue a higher education within the field of Art or Art History. It can be argued that writing a lengthy report based solely off of the research provided with in Symbolism of Power in Art would truly prove to be difficult. Thus it would be most beneficial to find additional first primary sources to further expand one’s overal knowledge



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